Of Oranges and Hassakus*

A specific type of orange was developed here in Innoshima – the hassaku.  It is generally larger than a navel orange and has a bitter initial taste that I would describe as a cross between an orange and a grapefruit, with the inner fruit tasting mildly sweet.  I love them.  They are now my favourite fruit and I wish I had access to them before!  Below is a picture of a bag of hassakus, with two natsumikans (summer oranges) in front of them.  Natsumikans are HUGE, like a large grapefruit.  They have a very thick rind and pale orange, nearly yellow flesh.  The bananas are for size reference…

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After falling in love with hassakus and later on being able to afford bread as a splurge, I decided that a major splurge was in order – marmalade. Not just any marmalade would do – I had seen miniscule jars of hassaku marmalade and got it into my pretty little head (okay, debatable adjectives) that I was going to find a decent size jar of hassaku marmalade. So I did…and it cost me the equivalent of about $10 Canadian…Ouch.
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It was really good, but I being the strange person that I am prefer a more bitter marmalade. So although my love affair with fresh hassakus remains extremely passionate, it does not extend to the jammy side of things.
 

 
How ironic it was then, this morning, when an extremely kind older lady presented me with a jar of homemade marmalade! If that’s not a spectacular thing to happen right at the start of one’s day, I don’t know what is.

 
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 I can’t tell you how it compares to my hassaku marmalade, because I won’t open it until the other jar is nearly finished. Fridge space is limited in my little apartment size fridge and I won’t sacrifice it for the sake of a marmalade review!

 

*N.B. This is in reference to the phrase “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” from Robert Burns’ actual phrase “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley,”  The point being that to me, oranges are mere mice compared to hassakus (The joke being that my best-laid scheme to produce a pun based on that line went completely awry by the necessity of explaining it…).

Food day. 食べ物曜日 Part 3 – Yakushima Specials

Soooo…I spent some time in Yakushima.  It was a completely magnificent experience, and so the fact that I’m simply posting about food feels very superficial and degrading to what it means to me personally – but I’m going to do it anyway.

I spent one full day with a lovely woman, Yoko, and her young son – we decided to drive around the circumference of the island and stop wherever we wanted to on our way.  After a few small errands and a sightseeing stop at Torohki-no-taki, a beautiful waterfall which drops directly into the ocean (which is a rare type of waterfall, if you didn’t know), we stopped at the Yakushima Botanical Park.

Well…I’ll have to talk about the plants another time…but for one thing, it was my first first time seeing hedges of aloe plants.  My eyes nearly popped out of my head, coming from the cold Canadian clime as I do.  After our tour through the park, we went back into the entrance and looked over the various souvenirs in the shop.  Yoko pointed out the aloe and asked if I wanted to try some.  I didn’t understand her.  That was happening constantly throughout Yakushima, but the locals there, especially Yoko, gave me a fantastic crash course in Japanese and were shockingly patient and kind.  It was really heartwarming and surprising, given everything I’d read about the wide berth Japanese give to tourists and also observing some culture clashes firsthand between Western tourists and local businesspeople/officials/bus drivers.  Screw normality – it’s great to be different, even if you have to wait a long time between payouts.

Anyway, I turned around from investigating some shellfish whistles (Yoko’s son kindly gave me a demonstration of their sound and volume!) to see Yoko with a couple of plates in hand, with strange, nearly translucent chunks of (food?) and toothpicks on them…

 

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We sat down and enjoyed the delicacy. It had the resistance of a pomegranate sarcotesta (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarcotesta) – minus the seed of course – with an extremely subtle flavour similar to the scent of fresh morning dew. It was served with a drop of mild soy sauce which set it off nicely. Can you guess what it was?
Yes, it was aloe. They were selling aloe leaves in the shop which were about two feet long and 2 inches in diameter at the base.

A different day, I went to a barbeque in the back of a nearby izakaya with Yoko and her son. The family that runs the restaurant had invited us both over, after Yoko and I met there and managed to have an extended conversation covering everything from the 2011 tsunami and Fukushima disaster to stripping nude with strangers in a mixed gender open-air sea-side onsen. Somewhere between those two variables, we were also conversing with the husband and wife as they went about their business and waited for us to leave or new customers to come in…
Have you tried sake? He asked. Sure, I’ve tried sake. Have you tried shochu? What? I was a bit tired, I had heard of shochu before. He pulled this from beneath the bar:
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He took out two gigantic clear beer steins and gave Yoko and I each one on the house despite her protests and my deer-in-the-headlights shock. For a minute I thought he’d filled the whole thing up with shochu…but no, he’d mixed us each a chuuhai – a shochu highball. I took a sip, and another. This was the purest tasting drink I have ever tasted. I am not exaggerating. While I hiked in Yakushima I stopped at mountain streams and drank the water from them – the water was incredibly delicious – if not the best than certainly very close to the best spring water I’ve ever tasted. This chuuhai put the water to shame. My only way to explain its taste to you is that as I drank it, I thought of this scene from Revelation 22:1: “And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.” – Webster’s Bible. You can call me sacrilegious if you want to, but until you’ve tasted this you really have no moral right to. Water that cleanses the soul, heals physical and spiritual damage, and imparts eternal life should taste like this.
He explained that this kind of shochu is made entirely of local Yakushima ingredients – the water, sweet potatoes, EVERYTHING – and other “Yakushima shochu” brands contain imported ingredients and are inferior.
So there you are. You heard it from me first – the fountain of youth is on Yakushima. Get it while you can 😉

P.S. There are various kinds of shochu – this particular type is imo shochu (sweet potato whiskey). If you’re really curious you can read about shochu varieties here: http://www.nymtc.com/Shochu/Wholesale-Shochu-List-by-Categories.html#.U5QZ6PmSzeY

Sick in Japan

It started last week, with 2 consecutive days of “mountain” climbing (large hill climbing).  I was pretty worn out and had a bit of a sore throat when I returned to work Tuesday…

Now I know all about how important it is to conserve your voice and not to overstress it when it is showing signs of strain – but knowing and doing are two different things.  I worked at a preschool that day, singing and yelling, and then taught more classes afterward.  By the end of the night I had a very hoarse voice.  I was doing my best Fran Drescher impression and these poor Japanese students didn’t even know it, because they haven’t been subjected to Fran Drescher movies.  Maybe I’ll recommend the Beautician and the Beast to them sometime, to further their exposure to the delights of Western civilization. 

Wednesday my voice was terrible, but I could still force out wheezy voice-like sounds between the odd squeak of a word lost in mid-air.  My last class was a group of four girls who finally awoke from their cram-school-induced stupor just in time to excitedly spill tea all over and share some very interesting stories with me.  You know, it takes a lot of talking and positive reinforcement to wake someone from a stupor.  Thursday morning I’d lost my voice completely and had a terrible cold.  There was only a wheeze – no words.  I had to take two full days off. 

A kind soul brought me my first bowl of okayu (translates as “rice porridge” but it was more like a delicious soupy rice with vegetables and egg cooked in with it), Povidone throat gargle, and three packets full of magical yellow powder…was it a rub?  Was I supposed to drink it?  Was it sacred goat urine?  (private joke there)  I guessed I was supposed to drink it and mixed it into a cup of hot water…but there was no smell!  My nose was plugged but shouldn’t something that yellow smell like lemon, or honey, or anything edible?  I quickly loaded up Google, and to my relief discovered that this concoction was not only a drink, it was chock full of vitamins and a bit of cold medicine (similar to the kind I had to leave behind in Canada because of Japan’s ridiculously stringent import rules, even though I already had a year’s supply of cold tablets…and yes I am a little bitter about it!)  Anyway, I drank the stuff.  It tasted disgusting – possibly how a super-concentrated grapefruit peel tea might taste.  But it sure worked.  I was slowly regaining my voice and by Saturday night I taught 3 classes, but still with a terrible voice.  After having Sunday and Monday off, my normal voice returned!  Hooray!  Despite that, the cold lingered.  I was still tired and had sinus headaches, making classes difficult simply because it’s hard to concentrate when you’re miserable. 

Povidone iodine throat gargle solution and Paburon Gold-A packets

Povidone iodine throat gargle solution and Paburon Gold-A packets

As I was leaving a preschool, a bunch of tiny little boys I had taught ran after me to the gate.  Their bright yellow caps bobbed up and down like bouncy balls as they yelled “Sensei!  Eigo no sensei!  Tanoshikatta!!! Tanoshikatta!!” (Teacher!  English teacher!  I had fun/it was fun!)  Well, the rest of the evening I had a nasty headache and kinda wanted to die, but that was really sweet and made my day.  It was a memory to hang on to (especially for other days which I’m sure are coming when they’re bored out of their minds and want to get rid of me ASAP).

From now on, I’m going to be very paranoid about voice strain.  I never, never want to lose my voice like that again.  The only thing scarier than sounding like Fran Drescher is having no voice at all.